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Men of All Seasons Box Set

By R.W. Clinger

Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

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Copyright 2017 R.W. Clinger

ISBN 9781634864701

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Cover Design: Written Ink Designs |

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

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Men of All Seasons Box Set

By R.W. Clinger

Table of Contents:

The Fine Art of Reading Riley

Mr. Hideaway

Autumn Cliché

20 Days of Tuck

* * * *

The Fine Art of Reading Riley

To Kenito Padilla.

The book club invitations Stone Daye sent to his guests included the following information:

Date: January 11, 20—

Time: 7:00 P.M.

Address: 2378 Messgrove Avenue

Plimpton, Pennsylvania

Chosen Book: A Winter Affair

Author: Robert Riley

RSVP by email: stonedaye@…

* * * *

Stone placed the invitations in the mail on January 1. As of January 10, he had heard from a few guests who wanted to attend. Now it was January 11, the day of the event and…

Stone looked at his watch and realized he had eight hours until book club members started arriving at his two- to three-hour party. The scheduled time for the event was 7:00 P.M., but Lance, his irresponsible and sex-swooned nephew, never failed to be late, and his bestie, Conner Worthington, had to work late, probably tied up at least until eight. No matter what, the book club started on time each month, with or without all nine members, all of which Stone knew would eventually show.

Feeling overwhelmed, having a lot to do today and suffering from a clusterfuck of thoughts inside his head, Stone wanted everything to be perfect since the last book club event at Marigold Lofty’s cottage in Harrison Hills turned out be an epic failure. Stone wanted tonight to be enchanting, almost whimsical, and rather uppity, without coming across as being pretentious and arrogant, which all of the club members thought of him.

He had a list of chores to accomplish by seven that evening. The Tudor needed cleaned from top to bottom. Sadie Harrison, a Baptist Congolian with bright-white eyes and a beer belly, had planned to come around at noon and scrub the place clean, concentrating on every nook and cranny. Stone had hired the grandmother of six to do menial tasks throughout the year. He wanted to impress his book club members the way Marigold tried to impress them with a male stripper named Ralph X, which ended up being far too shocking. Stone had groceries to buy at The Basket Grocery Store and a stack of Robert Riley paperback books to pick up at Turn the Page Books, which were door prizes he wanted to share with his guests. There were also flowers to pick up, chocolates, both gifts for Lance, since it was almost his twentieth birthday. Lance loved flowers, a botanist at heart, always captivated by red roses or pink carnations.

At some point in his day, he had to eat. Honey mustard drizzled over a cranberry-almond salad with sweet- and salt-buttered rolls had been the plan for lunch. Granted, it wasn’t the healthiest, low-calorie meal he could chow down in a hurry, but it seemed better than two cheeseburgers, a large fry, and a milkshake at a fast food restaurant.

Weight had always been one of Stone’s problems. Love handles were a nuisance in his life, and he tried to work out at least three times a week at Muscles & Men, a gay gym on Plimpton’s Main Street. He really needed to cut back on his carbohydrates, though, having a sick weakness for a slew of breads, particularly rye and pumpernickel with slices of Dutch cheese. If he could just lay off the pasta, too, things in the weight division of his life would look better for him. For now, it wasn’t going to happen, particularly today.

Besides lifting a few weights, jogging, and rowing at his local gym, he liked to speed walk. Studies in a variety of fitness magazines stated that speed walking could be unhealthy, and other magazines said it was the way to go. Stone really didn’t care what nonfiction writers thought of his workouts, wanting all of them to mind their own love handles, of course. So shame on them.

The reason he enjoyed speed walking so much was because he could listen to one of Robert Riley’s megahit e-books. Truth and Eco’s Desire was Stone’s last pick, and he wasn’t unsatisfied in the least. Something about Riley’s writing came across as soothing, meticulous, and challenging all at the same time. He really couldn’t explain why he liked Riley so much, but he did. No one was about to tell him otherwise.

Truth and Eco were lovers during a nuclear and apocalyptical war set in 2093, somewhere in, or near, Kansas; Riley didn’t make such a place official for his readers. The author purposely created the characters as hermaphrodites, confusing most readers and critics, which Stone loved about the four-hundred and fifty-page tome. Most of the other club members found it tedious and a blur. Another attribute about the book entailed its short chapters, a total of over two hundred, and all being less than two pages long. Yet another fascinating fact about the best-selling novel was that Truth and Eco were brother and sister, but not by blood, only by reconstructed tissue after spending the first five years of their lives in a German hospital that had mastered cloning.

Honestly, Stone thought Riley an impervious genius on paper and one of the great thinkers of today’s unexceptional world of fluff and beach reads. All twenty-seven novels the author published and shared with the world left Stone feeling bewildered, enlightened, depressed, and happy. And Stone couldn’t wait for number twenty-eight, Misfortune of Myth, which just happened to be out in April of the following year, a six-hundred and fifty-nine-page hardback by Smithington Company, and costing a steep thirty-two bucks per copy.

“Get a move on it, pokey,” Stone said to himself, admiring his salt-and-peppered hair in the mudroom’s mirror positioned above a Crate & Barrel bench where guests could sit and slip their shoes on and off or take a slight breather. How he had obtained a sprinkle of gray hair at such the young age of thirty-two was beyond his comprehension. His twin, Samuel, still had a full head of black hair, without the tiniest streak, dapple, or blade of gray. Samuel had always tried to up him on everything, though, ever since Stone could remember: career, bank accounts, property values, BMWs, and vacations. No wonder the brothers didn’t talk anymore, living on two different sides of the country, ignoring each other to the best of their abilities.

Stone still looked rather young for a man who had just exited his twenties, even if he had some gray. His friends, who inevitably included the book club members, thought he acted older, not that he could help it, of course. He was clean-shaven, with sparkling blue eyes, a slender, sharp Greek nose, and straight teeth thanks to braces at the age of fifteen. Stone looked almost like a cartoon character: somewhat clumsy, thin-lipped, pink-cheeked, and not at all his age. If he could only lose some fat around his neck, he might be involved with a man. But his discreet and private love life was another topic for another time since he had to leave and carry out his chores.

Truth told, he didn’t want to think about the extra meat around his middle. Samuel had always called it blubber and bullied Stone through grade school, middle school, and high school. Some things were best not to think about, right? This is what he processed while leaving his Tudor unlocked for Sadie Harrison to enter and start cleaning. He headed outside and into the cold driveway where his snow-covered BMW was parked.

* * * *

Fresh snow fell down from the heavens: bulky snowflakes mixed with a tempestuous wind, which added a ferocious cold layer to the day. The chill felt almost unbearable, in the low twenties, biting. Five inches of snow had already covered Plimpton. By the end of the day, at least three more inches could be expected, according to the early morning news. Later, a torrential snowstorm could hit his little town, coming down from Canada, if it veered ever so slightly to the west, catching Pennsylvania’s northwestern lakeside coast.

The Basket Grocery Store sat at the far end of Elberstein Way in downtown Plimpton, next to Dixie’s Cardshop Land. A parking lot that snugly fit seven cars could be located behind the brick building. The square footage of the place was ten thousand feet, consisting of a bakery area, dairy, meats, vegetables, and a miscellaneous aisle jam-packed with foreign foods. Hours of operation were from six in the morning until ten at night, every day of the week. Plimpton was a small town next to Lake Erie, bumped up against Templeton and the city of Erie. All three cities were closed on holidays throughout the year, which included Martin Luther King’s birthday, Columbus Day, Presidents’ Day, and Flag Day.

Today wasn’t a holiday, though, and Basket Grocery flashed a bright orange sign saying Open. Stone thought the Chinese-American owners of the grocery store a delight. Xi Cho, (pronounced Zee Chew), was funny, with his unibrow, wide smile, and bright brown eyes. Pai, (pronounced Pie), his wife of ten years, was just as amazing, kind-hearted, polite, and quite the little buzzing bee around their grocery store. The imported couple from Nanjing, China had been only a few years younger than him. Xi’s family became known for making shoes (xie), and Pai’s family made straw hats (caomao). They didn’t feel embarrassed about their past lives in China and called the eighteen-year-old period something in Chinese Stone couldn’t understand. He recently translated it as: our struggle for a better life.

There were two particular stock boys, Dave and John, who worked for Xi and Pai. They were nephews to the owners. Xi and Pai made a goal to have American and Chinese cultures blend, hence the water-downed names. Dave, Stone guessed, probably had the name Ding, and John translated from Ji, not that Stone knew for sure. Frankly, he didn’t care what the teenagers’ names were. He glanced at the cousins for a brief amount of time, stopped, and then headed to the restroom area at the back of the store to drain his bladder, which felt as if it were going to burst.

The bathroom sat on the second floor of the grocery store. It looked simple, unisex. Two American Standard toilets were divided in stalls. Green tile covered the floor. Two mirrors hung on the wall above two sinks. One of the sinks kept dripping with water. The small room smelled like Pine-Sol, freshly cleaned by maybe John or Dave.

Stone took a long piss, emptying his bladder. A smile formed on his face as he remembered being twenty years old, having loads of safe and unsafe sex in various roadside restrooms throughout western Pennsylvania. Those were ridiculous days in his life when he acted careless, willy nilly about things, and not at all mature. Twelve years could change a person, though, turning a boy into a man. It happened to him, like most men his age. They went from having rough bathroom sex with random roadies to throwing book club parties with their closest friends.

He zipped up, washed his hands, and returned to the main floor of the grocery store. Boxes of all-natural granola caught his eye and so did Jack Panda, his ex-lover.

Jack Panda, more or less, came across as Jack-off in Stone’s heart. Nothing seemed all-natural about the idiot. Coincidentally, the two met in a restroom three years ago along Interstate 79, jacked each other off outside a small city named Butler, exchanged cell numbers, and tried to make a go of a relationship for two years. Jack liked his restrooms a little too much and played the field while involved with Stone, screwing every Tom, Dick, and Harry he could find. The relationship ended a year ago, and Stone hadn’t seen him since, a wish come true.

Jack still looked good, with his blond hair and blue eyes, astute and model-like. He had the stance and jawline of a cowboy. The scruff on his chin and cheeks told Stone the guy still liked to be a player. Sex in restrooms continued to be the man’s gig. Jack looked like one of those steamy and sexy guys on the front cover a drugstore paperback romance. Chiseled, as well as degrading, filthy, and many other undignified labels. They made eye contact but didn’t speak to each other.

Good thing, Stone thought, because I just might slam one of my fists in the guy’s face.

Jack really buggered their business over, leaving Stone high and dry when the romance in their relationship had died. The business they started together three years ago was called The Cat Breed. They were hired to provide cat owners with exclusive and personal information about their client’s cats. Details pertained to cat standards for showing purposes. Withers, coats, necks, croups, hocks, tails, paw pads, stifles, stops, and whiskers were listed in a portfolio for each client about their beloved pussy. The information then qualified, or unqualified, the owner’s cat for showing purposes.

Jack and Stone made a killing from the business. Then Jack sued the Jesus out of him for half of the business, won, and started a new business called The Perfect Pussy, which, Stone understood, had become popular and did quite well, according to rumors, even with its offensive name.

In the end, the attorneys Bradley, Rawe, and Crow legally forced Stone to ditch The Cat Breed trademark. Stone then started his own company, Catfabulous, which cloned everything The Cat Breed had become, except with a different name. The first six months of business were grueling, unproductive, and filled with much heartache for Stone. But the last six months had taken a turn-around for the better and proved he could make a living at providing cat owners advice for possible showings. No, he could never be a millionaire, but he had found a sense of happiness, especially now that Jack had exited the stage of his life and Stone’s heart had healed. Amen.

Screw Jack Panda, Stone thought, turning his view away from the man who had temporarily ruined him. Stone had bigger and better things to accomplish, like prepare for the book club and his guests that evening.

During the next twenty minutes, he gathered an arrangement of food for his fellowship. Blueberry cheesecake, maple-bacon-filled turnovers, a variety of frozen appetizers, and freshly made pot-stickers were tossed into a green plastic basket he carried around the store like Little Red Riding Hood. Thereafter, he made his way to the front of the store and the register area.

There were two Robert Riley paperbacks next to an assortment of magazines at the checkout. Tender Down and The Wicked Will Prey. Both were national best-sellers at the turn of the century, and Stone enjoyed them, staying up late into the night to finish. Tender Down was a mystery set in Erie. A young man had been found along Lake Erie, and his neck sported a slice from ear to ear. Short but potent, the solid whodunit had already been discussed, and thoroughly enjoyed, among Stone’s book club members.

The Wicked Will Prey comprised of two hundred pages that most of the members thought challenging; a romance/drama of sorts between an Amish boy from Foxburg, Pennsylvania, and a local high school drama teacher almost twice his age. Although Stone enjoyed the story, others in his book club found it an atrocity, sinful, and taboo, but still had claimed they had liked the tale.

With his purchases in hand, Stone left The Basket Grocery Store. Xi and Pai waved their goodbyes with friendly smiles, and off Stone went, continuing to be productive in his day.

* * * *

Plimpton had been under a snowstorm warning. Between Stone’s short travels from The Basket Grocery Store to his next stop, Finnegan’s Floral, the falling snow had thickened. Whirlwinds of the whiteness made it difficult to see just five feet in front of him. Some would have called the current state of the weather a whiteout, but Stone didn’t want to jump to that extreme thinking, telling himself that the snow falling from the white-blue heavens was temporary and nothing that would prevent him from carrying out his day’s errands prior to the book club function.

Finnegan’s Floral sat on the other end of Plimpton, next to Turn the Page Books. Stone could kill two birds with one stone, pun intended. He could pick up Lance’s early birthday lilies and a stack of barely used and inexpensive Robert Riley paperbacks for the book club guests.

On the drive from Elmerstein Way to West East Road, his cellphone buzzed. He snagged it from the middle console, pressed a button, and held up to his right ear.

“This is Stone.”

Nothing. Dead air. No one answered. Dammit. Such annoyances were happening a lot lately. Half of him believed it to be Jack Panda being immature and ludicrous, still angry over The Cat Breed. Their recent fight centered around a certain client named Miss Jacqueline Showalter. The sixty-year-old woman had three pristine and majestic shorthaired snowshoes: Canaan, Babel, and Eden. Miss Showalter loathed Jack Panda, though, and probably knew he enjoyed kinky restroom sex along Interstate 79 with random, unhealthy men, most of which were hairy truckers. She wouldn’t dare have the man even look at her pussies. Instead, she chose Stone Daye to assess her felines for future showings.

Bottom line, Jack held a grudge about losing Showalter as a client and probably felt pissed off at Stone for stealing business away from him. Filled with much hate, what better way was there for Jack Panda to celebrate such drudgery than with random calls, hang-ups, and heavy breathing?

Whatever. Stone had a busy day ahead of him, and nothing would prevent him for doing his errands, including Jack and his childish pranks. Important things had to be done for a fun-filled evening. So, to hell Jack Panda and his immature hang-ups.

Finnegan’s Floral included an all-glass building the size of a shoebox with every imaginable flower nestled inside its humid shell. Finnegan Reach opened the place four years ago when he turned thirty-four. The business had been a gift to him from his wealthy parents, Rowan and Maeve Finnegan, who had made their fortune by owning and operating seven beer distributors throughout the tri-state area during the last three decades.

Finnegan and Stone had a past, of course, and one that could never be construed as smooth. Finnegan, a truck-sized ginger, and hairy, which Stone loved about the guy, had once banged Stone’s ass like a gold-winning Olympian. Finnegan used quick and hard strokes to Stone’s rear, pleasuring them both. Stone dated Finnegan prior to Jack Panda. Although Finnegan wanted to have a long-term relationship, calling Stone his boyfriend/lover, Stone learned that Finnegan had a severe drinking problem and suffered from alcoholism. Therefore, they never really hit it off as a couple.

Fortunately, Finnegan decided to find the antidote for his alcoholism and attended AA meetings at least twice a week. Stone only knew this because Stan Marshall, his next door neighbor and alcoholic, attended the same meetings as Finnegan and violated AA bylaws/rules talking about Finnegan.

Stan did not give Stone a week-to-week update on the Irishman, but he sometimes did say to Stone when seeing him in his paved driveway, “That friend of yours. The one who looks like a roid-induced leprechaun, he’s a nice guy. I just wanted you to know that, and he’s recovering well. I rather like him.”

Yes, Finnegan had always come across as a nice guy, but he liked his alcohol a little too much, always drunk, which Stone really didn’t want in his life. Maybe Stone acted too selfish or didn’t want the leprechaun’s baggage in his world. Or maybe Stone simply wanted to remain single, unable, or unwilling, to attach himself to another man, even though he believed in a happy-ever-after story with someone other than the drinking ginger. God only knew. Stone certainly didn’t. Yet another mystery he noted in his strange life of wonders and unpredictable challenges.

After Stone entered Finnegan’s Floral, not even a patron for more than two minutes, the charming Irishman slipped up to him and pressed his left palm against Stone’s bulky chest.

“I missed you, guy. Give me a kiss for old time’s sake, stud. What do you say?”

Stone backed away from Finnegan’s reach and replied, “You’re sexy as hell, Finnegan, and you were always good in the bedroom, but you know a relationship will never work out between us. We’ve been there and tried that. Let it be the way it has turned out.”

“Trust me, I’ve got the drinking under control now. I’m sure your neighbor told you that. Stan Marshall’s in everyone’s business, including mine, which sort of pissed me off. But that has nothing to do with you.”

“He’s told me enough about you. I’m glad you’re doing well, Finnegan. Life is hard, and we never know what is going to be thrown our ways. It’s good to know you can handle your balls.” Stone regretted the use of balls as soon as he said the word. Whatever, though.

Finnegan chuckled, hearty, open-mouthed, and wide-eyed. “I could handle your balls with care, Stone. You know I always liked them.” He asked, “So what do you say about asking an old friend, who is now clean and sober, out on a date?”

Stone ignored his question and said, “I’m here for the lilies I ordered.”

“A dozen,” Finnegan said, coping rather well with the immediate rejection. “And don’t think I didn’t notice you just blew me off about a future date.”

“The flowers, Finnegan. Can you put them on my credit card?”

Finnegan had a copy of the card in his files. Stone maybe should have been afraid of someone stealing the card’s numbers or his identity, but he was a risk-taker by nature, except for dating handsome men with ginger hair and massive, bear-like chests who had a history of drinking too much.

Finnegan grumbled something Stone couldn’t hear as the Irishman fetched the dozen lilies. The ginger bear vanished into a cooler, returned a few seconds to Stone’s side, and presented the bundle of lilies to Stone. “Is it true you’re hosting the book club meeting tonight?”

Stone rolled his eyes. Finnegan was a huge fan of Robert Riley’s writings. Finnegan could name every title the author wrote and what year each book came out. Plus, he could give facts about Robert Riley no one else in the reading group could.

“You didn’t invite me again, Stone. How many times have I asked to be a part of your group? Oprah would be upset with you, and Robert Riley would, too.”

Frankly, Stone never intended to invite his ex-boyfriend to his reading club. Why should he? They were over as a couple, unbound and single. Even if they both enjoyed Riley’s books, Stone didn’t want to feel awkward having the ginger around his other reading friends. No rules or laws applied to the situation, but Stone just didn’t want to feel uncomfortable during his own gathering. Too bad for Finnegan Reach. Sometimes the cookie crumbled that way.

“There’s no need for a reply, Stone. I understand exactly when our relationship ended. Don’t think I’m a fool who is living lies. You don’t want me as a book club member, and I have to respect that.”

The guilt-layered comments didn’t work. Stone simply whisked away from the man and said over his shoulder while exiting the flower shop with his arrangement of flowers, “Don’t forget to bill my card, Finnegan. I will see you soon.”

* * * *

After putting the flower arrangement in his vehicle, Stone ventured into Turn the Page Books, considered the dust mite capital of Plimpton with its Leo Tolstoy hotels, Tom Wolfe mansions, and Nora Roberts trailers. There were very few hardbacks in the place, since paperbacks sold better. The business encompassed an eight hundred square foot area filled with shelves, local artwork on the walls, a few unseen cobwebs, and multiple racks of children’s books. One wall, from floor to ceiling, had been covered in used paperbacks. Lighting suffered in the place, and the wooden floor creaked with every footstep. Some patrons called the place a docile wonderland while others thought it should be condemned in the world of e-books and handheld electronic reading devices.

Tender Reese, the owner, could have been Lance’s best friend on various levels, which entailed mostly good times and a few bad ones. Stone thought the two young people had accidentally slept together once and tried to see if couplehood would work, which it didn’t for them. Neither were ever seen entwined in public. Besides, Stone knew his nephew had a string of boyfriends in the past year, sleeping with an arrangement of one-night stands. Although cute and sweet-looking, Tender had a few extra pounds around her middle.

The woman practiced Tai kwon die, as Stone called it, and could be a badass motherfucker when pushed. When she wasn’t kicking someone’s ass, she used her olive skin tone, beautiful brown eyes, and curvaceous frame to obtain exactly what she wanted sexually from her female companions. For a woman who had just turned forty-two, a decade older than Stone, Tender had all her ducks in a row, which included her finances, business, personal life, and other everyday, status-reared things of importance concerning a tax-paying citizen of Plimpton.

When Stone entered the book store, he couldn’t help being scrutinized by Tender’s two kitties, Blackie and Whitey. The felines spun around his feet, snapped the tips of their tails, mewed a few times, and approved of him as a well-liked and regular paperback shopper. Although Tender wanted to show her adorable felines for monetary prizes, another business adventure in the young woman’s life, she couldn’t. Blackie and Whitey were exceptionally beautiful British Shorthairs with mundane coats, odd-shaped heads, and a few paws with six toes. Because of these impurrfections, as Stone called them, the furry duo lived in the bookstore with Tender, their happy clients, many books to choose from for reading pleasure, and two sandboxes that were well-kept, always scooped out on a regular basis.

When Turn the Page Books ended up for sale in the spring of 2010, Stone counted his pennies and debated whether or not to purchase the business. Unfortunately, the world just so happened to be geared by electronic thing-a-ma-jiggers called Nook and Kindle, which inevitably changed his mind. Rarely, if ever, did he see anyone in Plimpton carry around a paperback mystery, thriller, or horror novel for enjoyment while they waited for a bus or sat in Plimpton Park, relishing the fresh air off Lake Erie. In the end, he had an uncanny feeling about purchasing the bookstore and passed on the opportunity, giving Tender rights to scoop it up with a wad of cash, money that had been given to her by her wealthy grandmother, Edna Steer-Reese. As far as Stone knew, the bookstore could never be a million-dollar-making property, but it did allow Tender to pay her duplex’s mortgage and supply food for the woman.

“Mr. Daye, I have something special for you today,” Tender said, lifting books here and there, moving piles of receipts, and a stack of magazines. Eventually, she came upon what she had been searching for and presented it to him.

As Blackie and Whitey continued to spin around Stone’s ankles, purring contently, Tender cordially (with smile and all) handed him a hardback novel by none other than Robert Riley. The green leather novel was four hundred pages long, had gilded pages, and sported a beautiful red ribbon marker that looked like its tongue. The pristine book felt heavy in his hands, almost perfect except for one battered corner that looked as if Blackie and Whitey had snacked on it.

Excited, admiring the book, Stone asked, “Where did you find this, Tender? I’ve been looking for years to get a copy.”

“You do know what it is, right?”

He nodded. “A limited and signed edition of Pearls of Vixen designed by a very small press called Paxtonian Books in Barefoot Beach, Florida. From what I understand, there were only five hundred printed and numbered. Two are in circulation that are signed twice by the author.”

Tender glowed with a smile. “You do know what it is. I knew you would. You’re an expert on Riley’s novels.”

“What number is this one?” he asked, feeling nervous and hot by just feeling the exclusive novel in his palms.


Perspiration built on his forehead, and he chirped, “How much is it?”

“I’m selling it at cost to you, since Lance sometimes lives with me. He’s my best friend, and because he’s your nephew and I feel that the two of you are part of my family. I wouldn’t feel right charging the thirty percent finder’s fee that I usually bill others.” Tender then shared a price with him.

“Thank you for being a wonderful human being, Tender. And thank you for being my nephew’s best friend. He’s quite the handful sometimes, and I know you steer him in the right directions.”

“I actually love being his confident. We are truly meant to be together, just not in the bedroom.”

Stone handed the book back to her, removed money from his wallet, adding thirty percent to the cost of the novel for Tender to make a profit. “Don’t argue with me. You’re not in business to give books away.”

No, Tender wasn’t in such a position. She smiled at him and accepted the money. After placing the short stack of twenties in her register, she said, “I have your box of paperbacks. Twelve in all.”

“How much, Tender?”

She looked up at the badly illuminated ceiling and mumbled something, obviously doing addition in her head. With her math complete, she said, “Forty-two dollars.”

He handed her forty-five dollars and told her to keep the change. When she passed him his small box of paperbacks, he said, “You know you’re still invited to join us this evening, right?”

“I wouldn’t dare,” she said. “You know how I am.”

Indeed, he did. Tender suffered from a very different and awkward social phobia that caused her to feel as if she were a know-it-all among other people. The last thing she wanted to do was become the queen of the reading group, embarrassing herself, and overcome with anxiety, talking too much. Stone really wasn’t sure about the psychological and professional term for her condition, but he was quite aware that it had a very long name, a weaving tongue-twister he probably couldn’t even pronounce.

Stone had always wanted Lance and Tender to have an affair, basking in each other’s skin like the youthful characters in Riley’s Pearls of Vixen. But maybe Lance couldn’t handle Tender that way, fearing that Tender might use her tai kwon die on him, afraid to live with the woman on a full-time basis, a nonparticipant in sharing romantic affections with her. Maybe Lance kept a distance from the plump warrior because they made better friends than lovers. But, if Tender decided to put the moves on him, which Stone clearly doubted happening, it could have been a scene of romance for Lance, or a death wish comprised of street fighting techniques. Who knew?

Ending his visit at Turn the Page Books, Stone carried his box of twelve paperbacks and the limited copy of Robert Riley out of the store, calling over his right shoulder, “I do know you, Tender. Trust me when I say you will be missed this evening. If you change your mind, join us.”

Tender shook her head, waved goodbye, and continued her workday as her two felines attempted to trip her, swirling around the woman’s feet.

* * * *

Stone had learned from a demised friend that gifts to people were to be more personal than a kiss. At first, he felt appalled by such a practice, but as he had grown older, a whopping three decades, plus two years, he had learned that a gift had turned out to be a way to touch the human heart that made it burn with joy, love, and a searing sensation.

And so Stone set out to find Lance Bangle the perfect birthday present. It had to be a certain piece of jewelry that clearly had some spunk to it and melodramatic symbolism. Since Lance had the life of a yo-yo, doing unthinkable tricks to stay alive through his infiltrated tragedies (drug and alcohol use, homelessness, and the suicide of his mother), Stone wanted the piece of jewelry to state hopefulness, remembrance, and survival of all things in the past, present, and in Lance’s unfamiliar future.

To find such a piece of jewelry, he decided to shop at The Diamond Abyss, a jewelry store on Cullen Avenue in downtown Plimpton. The store sat approximately four blocks away from Turn the Page Books. After dropping off his collected box of books inside his BMW, he walked the four blocks to the jewelry store, needing and wanting the exercise.

Snow and wind brushed against his face. The extreme chill started to freeze his system, reaching through his North Face jacket. He exhaled a plume of what looked like smoke, resembling a dragon. His pace quickened as he walked through the winter wonderland, caught up in the icy weather. Stone enjoyed winter, but didn’t want to lose a limb from gangrene because of the low temperature and wicked wind. Everything about the day felt biting and like a frozen tundra, which caused Stone discomfort with unclear thoughts.

As he trotted down Cullen Avenue, keeping to the right on the sidewalk, strolling more than walking, he recalled that his nephew, Lance Andrew Bangle, had had a unlucky life ever since he was a young boy. Stone’s twin brother, Samuel, had met Trina Bangle, Lance’s mother, at the age of twenty-two during Samuel’s senior year at Dartmouth. Trina was thirty-seven at the time, divorced, and just so happened to be raising a teenaged Lance at the time. Trina had no association with Dartmouth in the slightest, except for almost running Samuel and his bicycle over with her VW Bug on Dartmouth property. Thereafter, Samuel, suffered from minor cuts and bruises. Trina, having learned to be careful on her bike, decided to date Samuel sporadically, became lovers with the man, and married him three years later.

Lance confessed to Stone numerous times that his mother and Samuel fought almost twenty-four hours a day during their two years of marriage. Name-calling was primal and unending in their relationship. A few cheek-slaps, cheating on each other, and deceit were all common traits in the marriage.

Lance confided in Stone and told him, “My mother and step-father are fire and water.”

Because of the trials and tribulations at home, unwilling to surrender himself to his mother and step-father’s brutal hostility, Lance ran away from the couple and became homeless, living on Plimpton, Templeton, Erie, and Codiver streets for almost eight months. Stone then took the boy under his wing and housed him, fed the poor thing, and dressed his nephew, accomplishing stability in Lance’s life.

Before Stone’s interception in the boy’s street life, Lance did an arrangement of drugs, slept with men for cash, and sometimes stole money to survive. None of those actions caused Stone to judge his nephew, though, knowing he had suffered dearly under his mother’s and Stone’s brother’s questionable care.

Perhaps the most tragic event in Lance’s life was the suicide of his mother. Trina Bangle failed to be mentally stable and consumed many prescription drugs for a balance. Stone believed schizophrenia could have been easily diagnosed had the woman been psychologically analyzed, as well as other psychological disorders.

Because of Trina’s mental condition and the unstable and aggressive marriage with Stone’s brother, the woman became powerless, insane, and eventually hung herself in the spring of 2011. Stone had found her dangling from the bedroom ceiling in his brother’s Malibu beach house, swinging to and fro with a snapped neck, a purple and yellow cadaver that could no longer be considered anyone’s mother. Trina offed herself as quickly and quietly as her son had taken to the streets.

Hardship reined without any limits in Lance’s life, which caused Stone to become a father-like figure in the young man’s life for the last few years. Not only had he made sure that Lance wasn’t homeless, providing a room for the young man, but he had kept Lance from taking drugs and selling his body for cash. Stone also had promised himself to feed and clothe the young man and keep Lance from offing himself the way his mother had.

As of late, Lance happened to be doing well. He was turning twenty in a few days and leaving for Tokyo with one of his best female friends, Yoko, where he would stay for the next month. Of course, Stone paid for the Japan trip, forking out six thousand dollars for his nephew to enjoy his travels in the East where he could consume sake, Japanese pop culture, and be an expert of Feng Sui and Sudoku.

Stone thanked all the gods in heaven that his nephew hadn’t been living on the streets anymore, residing temporarily with him, Tender, Yoko, and a number of men he occasionally slept with. Such comfort would be coming to an end, though, and soon. For now, Lance resided stateside for the next week, safe under Stone’s close care and readying himself to fly the thousand-plus miles to Tokyo. Stone planned to give Lance a few of the Robert Riley paperbacks he collected for his nephew’s travels, novels Lance could read on his flights to and from Japan and in his spare time when he wasn’t experiencing the Japanese culture of sushi, game shows, and Godzilla.

Presumably, Lance was supposed to attend Stone’s book function, although Stone knew he didn’t like most of the book club members and maybe didn’t even like the books. Lance basically attended the gathering to enjoy the opportunity to discuss the ins and outs of Robert Riley’s writing style, even with members he didn’t care for. Something about Riley sparked Lance’s interest that Stone honestly couldn’t pinpoint. Perhaps because the Pittsburgh-born and—raised author had written of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, homelessness, divorced parents, and Japan; all topics Stone’s nephew could relate to. Then again, Lance rarely, if ever, talked about the writer and maybe didn’t like his novels and their shared themes.

Everything about Lance Bangle seemed like a mystery, Stone thought, and one he would never figure out in its entirety. Not now and certainly not when he returned from Japan with Yoko. Lance would always be clandestine to him, even if Stone considered him a son-like figure in his life, part of him, and beloved.

* * * *

The chill of winter ate through Stone’s jacket. Snow blew into his eyes and seared his cheeks. A burning sensation moved across his bare flesh. He cringed in the snowstorm, abhorring the cold. The snow fell faster, harder, and Stone blocked his face with a gloved hand. The temperature dropped below twenty degrees, leaving him numb and bewildered. The bitter wind slashed against his body as he made his way to his next stop, continuing to run his errands. He braved the wind and cold, treaded forward, and carried out his day.

At 4832 Cullen Avenue, The Diamond Abyss resembled a sparkling gem. Glass-fronted with a jade tree covered in a variety of rings perched in one of its windows. The other window looked as if it had been decorated with raining diamonds and falling stars. Stone thought the inside of the store just as glittery with its rows of emerald watches, turquoise bracelets, ruby earrings, sapphire broaches, and pearl necklaces. Waist-high glass cases created a U-shape around the jewelry shop’s interior. The cases looked freshly dusted and sparkled. Stone studied engagement rings, Bolivia-imported gems, and emerald-cut rubies. There were silver bands, chocolate diamond wedding rings, and amethyst drop-earrings.

Dan Abyss, the owner of the store, resembled a limber fireman in his late forties. He wore horn-rimmed glasses on the tip of his nose, showcased a W-shaped mustache, and practiced being a Baptist. The storeowner had three sons who were twenty-seven: Michael, Matthew, and Marcus. The triplets worked under their father, running the business. Michael directed the opening of a second store in downtown Erie. Matthew labored in South Africa on a diamond hunt. And Marcus worked at the store in Plimpton, next to his daddy’s side, but had the day off while Stone visited.

Stone decided the perfect gift for Lance Bangle was a set of diamond earrings since his nephew had an arrangement of holes in his ears. The diamonds had to be something simple and not too flashy. He knew Lance loved earrings, wearing two or three in each ear at one time, enjoying how they shifted to and fro in the sunlight; always a conversation piece in his young world. Lance wore a variety of colors, metals, gems, and sizes. Fourteen-carat gold not chosen over silver, and vice-versa. Like the company Lance kept, he was eclectic about his ear wear, pretty much nondescript. No one could ever predict his true style, even Stone.

With Dan Abyss’s assistance, Stone looked at a number of diamond earrings. A few caught his eye. A sterling bracelet accented with two emerald clusters called out to him. The pair cost a little less than four thousand dollars, which wasn’t out of his price range. Another set of earrings that spoke to him entailed fourteen masculine-looking, gold, cross-shaped cuffs with diamond-shaped etchings, priced well above one thousand dollars. He ended up purchasing sterling silver cuffs with a wavy design in turquoise. The pair looked rather small, but quite eye-catching; pieces that could start many conversations during Lance’s Japanese travels.

Satisfied with his purchase, Stone had the earrings gift-wrapped in a rose-colored box that felt like silk. Stone exited the jewelry store and came face to face with Cameron Phillips, a thirty-one-year-old administrator at Plimpton College. Stone hadn’t seen him in a while. Cameron looked adorable in every sense of the word. The man had chocolate-colored mussed hair, a high jawline, and green eyes that sparkled like the emeralds in Dan Abyss’s jewelry store. Cameron stood at six-three and had the physique of a lumberjack, handsome beyond words, smiling, and not at all unpleased to see Stone Daye.

* * * *

Long story short, Stone had a bizarre history with the younger man, something he wasn’t proud of. The event had taken place shortly after the ruination of his relationship with Jack Panda, at the end of last summer. The temperature stayed at a solid eighty degrees for five days straight, and it sprinkled outside. Such weather did not prevent Stone from going for a walk through Plimpton Park. To no avail, Cameron Phillips had also been taking a walk at the same time. The two men decided to walk together, chat about Plimpton College, the school’s impressive basketball team, Cameron’s administrative job for the last nine years, and novels Cameron didn’t read but had seen the movies based on them.

After a two mile walk around the park, discovering hormones and an attraction to each other, Stone ended up at the young man’s Colonial-style house on the opposite side of Plimpton, naked and sweaty. Stone had been escorted to the guy’s bedroom on the third floor where the walls were covered in naked glossy pictures of men with bare chests and plump erections; vintage pinup photographs from gay magazines like Torso, Advocate Men, Jock, and Honcho.

Tucked in an eight-by-ten square foot bedroom with chipped paint on the windowsills, a broken window, and a bed that smelled of marijuana, Stone pumped the professor with his latex-covered cock, built up a sweat with the mathematician, and eventually blew his load on the man’s chest, glazing his fuzz-covered nipples and abs.

Their afternoon affair turned out be a one-shot deal, of course. No kissing or holding occurred during or after their intimacy. They didn’t discuss boyfriendhood or a second fling. It was a wham, bam, and thank you man kind of sexual encounter that allowed both men to get off, enjoying flesh and friction for a little more than twenty minutes.

What did Stone know about Cameron Phillips? Absolutely nothing, except where he lived in Plimpton and other minor details that really were of no concern. He didn’t know if Cameron had any siblings, if his parents were alive, or if he even liked to read fiction, let alone novels by Robert Riley. The only thing he honestly knew about the college administrator entailed the size of his dick (seven inches long and almost two inches thick) and that he was well-built, somewhat bearish and furry, and with a lined stomach and muscular thighs. Stone also knew that the younger man preferred being a bottom, craving cock for his ass, riding dick after sometimes picking up strangers in Plimpton Park.

* * * *

“Stone Daye,” Cameron said, smiling outside The Diamond Abyss. He stood so close to Stone on the sidewalk, their chins and lips almost touched. “I never thought I would see you again after you diddled me.”

“Plimpton is small. Of course, we would see each other again,” Stone replied, admiring the young man from head to toe, dazzled by his chiseled frame and Abercrombie & Fitch style.

The man looked good, edible, and perfect for his sexual needs, even if Stone didn’t know anything about him, and vice versa. He was a total stranger, but still interesting. Stone didn’t know if the guy read graphic novels, painted, or was a stalker. Nor did he know if Cameron had a boyfriend, was safe to have sex with, enjoyed fast food, or if he liked to sleep in. He couldn’t tell anyone he knew what Cameron’s middle name was, if he had any siblings, or what he was allergic to, if anything. They simply messed around once, which was impersonal but a good time for both of them, Stone guessed, and very strange.

Discreetly, Cameron reached between Stone’s legs, grabbed the man’s cock, and gave it a squeeze. As the pretentious and forward act carried out, the college professor said, “I want you to bang me again. What do you say to that?”

At first, Stone recollected he had a million and one things to do before the book club party. But then his cock started to swell under his khakis, and one or two bubbles of pre-ejaculate seeped out of his dick’s capped head and decorated his white boxer-briefs, all in a matter of seconds. Yes, he felt horny and needed the company of another man. Sex could be fun with the right guy, especially Cameron Phillips and his taut and needy bottom. Because Stone couldn’t remember having sex with a man, since he was drunk and high at the time, he decided to take Cameron up on his offer.

“I have an hour. Use my dick the way you want to, young man.”

* * * *

Cameron lived alone at 392 High Street, which gave Stone some private time with the young man, having every intention of bashing the college mathematician’s bottom with his inflated dick, pleasuring the both of them. Their clothes came off in the house’s cluttered living room, and they walked up the two flights of stairs and ended up inside Cameron’s third floor bedroom, which still smelled of cigarettes, old beer, and marijuana. The window overlooking High Street had been closed, and white sunshine filled the single room. Dirty clothes were scattered over the floor, and a video gaming system connected to the wall. Its components were scattered everywhere. A twenty-one-inch LED flat-screen hung on the wall, and college books where piled here and there.

Stone listened to the wind outside, January at its full tempest. A howling echoed within the large house as snow blew against the wooden siding. Never in his life had Stone heard such anger in a storm, swirling and pissed, not at all friendly. No matter how hostile the snowstorm acted, Stone followed Cameron’s actions and ended up on the man’s bed with him.

The twin-size bed squeaked under Cameron’s weight as he started to blow Stone. Stone let out a few moans of joy and ground his teeth together. The oral satisfaction continued for the next ten minutes, which almost made Stone shoot a load of ejaculate inside Cameron’s mouth.

Eventually, Cameron hoisted both of Stone’s legs up and delved the tip of his tongue in the man’s asshole. Plunging with his tongue occurred as well as a few swirls. Cameron moaned, licked the rim of Stone’s rear, and mumbled unintelligible things between laps.

They switched positions. Cameron lay on the bed with his legs spread open and Stone provided him with a ten-minute blowjob and an asshole massage.

Both men groaned with satisfaction until Cameron finally decided to instruct Stone to, “Shove your cock inside me.”

Latex and lube applied to Stone’s dick, he slid it inside the young man on the bed. The guy’s asshole was just as tight as the last time he screwed Cameron on the day of their shared park walk. Stone noticed Cameron’s chest was hairier and he now had some heavy-duty muscle.

Stone pounded the guy as long as he could before coming on his chest. Splatters of semen spurted out of his dick and splashed against Cameron’s chest. Globs hung in the young man’s chest hair. Then he jacked Cameron off with both hands, cheering him to come while his palms moved up and down on the administrator’s dick.

Eventually, Cameron came, oozing semen out of his upright cock like a volcano. It rolled down and over Stone’s knuckles and wrist until Cameron became empty, exhausted.

The affair ended as quickly as it had started. Stone didn’t know why he kissed the guy, but he did. It turned out to be a raw kiss with open mouths and some tongue. Stone’s heart heated up a touch, and he felt dizzy.

When he pulled away from Cameron, he said, “I’m having a book club meeting this evening at my house. You can come over after my guests leave.”

“Which will be when?”

“Eleven o’clock or thereafter. I’ll let you spend the night with me if you want.”

“I’d like that,” Cameron said, smiling from the bed, sticky with ejaculate, and breathing hard. “I remember where you live, on the other side of town with just a few other houses, the lake, and a lot of woods. It’s hidden somewhat, if I recall right.” He had never been to Stone’s Tudor, but he did know the street and house, just the same.

Stone really didn’t know why he told Cameron to visit him that night. Maybe if he hadn’t kissed Cameron, he wouldn’t have asked him over. Whatever. Stone couldn’t remember the last time he had slept with a man after having his world rocked. He needed some company. Maybe that certain somebody just happened to be Cameron, maybe not. Not that it mattered. Bottom line, it would be good to cuddle again with someone all night long and wake up to them in the morning. Every man needed that, right? Even Stone.

Yes, every man does, he thought, while leaving Cameron’s house, heading to his BMW. And every man also needs some sex once in a while.

* * * *

Sadie Harrison had already completed her cleaning chores at Stone’s Tudor when he returned home from his errands and sex romp with Cameron Phillips. A vacuum sat in the middle of the living room floor, and Stone could smell Pledge on the maple end tables, proving that she had already dusted or was in the process of dusting. He found her in the dining room, dusting off the chandelier above the table that sat six comfortably. The woman looked top-heavy and always wobbly, destined to someday fall over, particularly now while reaching forward and upwards with a five-foot feather duster, stretching every muscle in her overweight body.

Sadie was the strongest black woman Stone had ever known, always a supporter of the local Black Rights Legion, a foundation that protected African-American men and women from being brutalized by racist cops in northwestern Pennsylvania, among other areas. Sadie organized and attended fund-raisers for the group, and she spoke as one of its key members, protecting communities from violence and disparage in the modern world of violence committed against blacks. Her IQ ranked at average, and never did she use correct grammar. Had it not been for her upbeat and positive attitude, her BRL foundation wouldn’t have taken off, leaving the woman heartbroken.

“How are you, dear?” Stone asked, stepping closer to the table.

The feather duster fell out of her right hand, and its plastic handle clicked against the dining room table’s surface. She grabbed at her heart with both palms and screamed at the top of her lungs, “Jesus, Mary, and Jo Jo! Mr. Daye, you scared the poo out of me! How many times have I told you not to do that? What were you thinking?”

“My apologies.” He tried to soothe her, knowing the woman had always been on edge and nervous most of the time. He believed she needed something for anxiety, a little pink pill with quite the kick and easy to swallow, just to calm her down. Sadie didn’t do any kind of drug, though. Not cold medicine. Not aspirin. Nothing of the sort. Her body had been drug-free for the last forty years of her life, and that’s exactly how she wanted to keep it.

She pulled out a chair and sat down, waving a hand in front of her face as if it was a fan, attempting to cool down. “Don’t ever sneak up on a woman twice your age. Some of us know karate and those fancy moves like your nephew’s friend, Tender. Other women would have beat you to the ground. I, on the other hand, am a lady, just as I’ll always be. Amen to that.”

He wanted to laugh but didn’t. Instead, he moved up to Sadie, placed a palm over her shoulder, and provided it with a gentle squeeze. “I’ll call your cellphone before I come in next time. How does that sound?”

“Sounds like I’ll live longer, and you won’t have to arrange my funeral, young man.”

“Exactly. That’s my intention.”

For the next fifteen minutes, they talked about Sadie’s duties for the day: clean both bathrooms, prepare appetizers later in the day for his guests, and place and organize the Robert Riley tomes on a reading table in the living room for the guests to pick through from those he had retrieved from Turn the Page Books. He also wanted her to light an arrangement of candles for the evening, hinting that it would make the house smell better as opposed to all the cleaning supplies she had spent that morning and afternoon using. He expressed such a concern with politeness, of course, not ever wanting to be a tyrant and crossing a line by disrespecting the woman.

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